Breeding grounds for terror
European nations unprepared for rising lure of radicalization
BRUSSELS ain and confusion mix on Geraldine’s tear-stained face as she recounts how her son Anis, an 18-yearold who grew up half-Belgian and half-Moroccan in one of this city’s notorious Muslim enclaves, went off to Syria and died fighting with the Islamic State group.
But the mother’s sorrow turns quickly to anger when she reveals that the jihadi recruiter who lured her son into the terrorist group’s grip is still operating freely in Belgium.
“The recruiter was the son of an imam,” said Geraldine, who requested that her last name not be revealed. “In June, I told the police. They told me not to say his name publicly. They said he’s been interviewed and they are reopening the case.”
The anguished mother’s predicament stabs at the heart of the Islamic State crisis in Europe. Political and law enforcement authorities across the Continent are struggling to confront the depth of the terrorist group’s recruiting hooks in disaffected Muslim enclaves.
On the front lines are Paris and Brussels, where first- and second-generation North Africans account for 15 percent and 26 percent of the population, respectively. Authorities in both capitals have faced no shortage of criticism for failing to integrate Muslim residents into the societal fabric, resulting in a cohort of disenfranchised young men who are worryingly open to a message of radicalism.
Along with that temptation is the European Union’s wider problem of a security apparatus that is ill-equipped to deal with the threat of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. Fighters return home from Syria and Iraq with an eye toward sliding easily across Europe’s porous borders and recruiting another generation of followers to carry out violent jihad without leaving their local neighborhoods.
Underfunded, uncoordinated and poorly trained police in several nations, coupled with the lack of a strong central counterterrorism system and the outright failure of EU member states to share basic data on suspected terrorists and recruiters, fuel a situation that American officials say is only getting worse.
“I don’t like saying it, but there’s no question Europe’s going to get hit by more attacks,” said one U.S. lawmaker, who has held high-level meetings with intelligence officials from several European nations during recent months.
The lawmaker spoke on the condition of anonymity with The Washington Times early this summer — during the initial reporting for this special series of articles examining hot spots in the war against terrorism that President Obama and allied leaders have yet to control, a war that will be handed over as the foreign policy priority for whoever wins the presidency in November.
The U.S. lawmaker’s grim warning came to pass in shocking fashion in mid-July, when an Islamic State-inspired attacker of Tunisian descent mowed down crowds of Bastille
PDay revelers with a truck in the French city of Nice. Eighty-five people died. Ten were children and teenagers. A third of the victims were Muslim. The Islamic State quickly claimed credit, saying its “soldiers” were also responsible for a wave of smaller but no less grisly incidents that followed: a train attack by an ax-wielding 17-year-old Afghan boy in Germany; a suicide bombing by a 27-year-old Syrian asylum seeker, also in Germany; and an assault by two French teens of Algerian descent who videotaped themselves slitting the throat of an 86-year-old Catholic priest in Normandy.
Intelligence officials say it’s unclear whether the tactics mark a definitive shift to less-sophisticated “lone-wolf” attacks, but Europeans have remained on edge for months in the wake of brutal assaults in Paris and on the Brussels airport and subway.
European nations have struggled to deploy adequate resources to confront the rising threat.
France has kept 10,000 military troops deployed around its interior since November’s street attacks, and police have carried out more than 4,000, often chaotic, raids on suspected jihadi hideouts. President Francois Hollande has authorized the searches of homes without warrants under a state of emergency decree.
Brussels authorities say the alert level is just as high, with 134 terrorism-related arrests during the first five months of the year, a nearly 25 percent increase over last year.
Police are also quick to tout how the nation’s politicians, notoriously riven by Dutch-French ethnic and language divides, responded to the Brussels attacks in unprecedented fashion by pushing through long-delayed legislation to allow counterterrorism raids at night.
The absence of such raids outraged American and British intelligence officials, who were attempting to advise Belgians on internal security.
“It used to be forbidden to do home searches between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.,” Federal Police spokesman Peter De Waele told The Times. “The terrorists knew they could do whatever they wanted after 9 p.m. Now we can give them the feeling that they’re never safe.”
Critics say the French and Belgian counterterrorism responses still fall short.
“Between the two nations, it’s not been anywhere near as good as it could be and it’s clear in both that counterterrorism intelligence is too fragmented and needs to be more aggregated,” said Nigel Inkster, a former high-level official of MI6, the British foreign intelligence service.
Mr. Inkster, now an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Belgian police in particular have simply failed to engage with the nation’s large and growing Muslim population from North Africa, even though the Muslim enclaves have been there for more than a generation. “I’m not sure the Belgian security services have a single Arabic speaker on their books,” he said.
Belgium has struggled to track jihadi recruiters in areas such as Molenbeek St. Jean. At least three of the men who carried out the Paris attacks in November grew up and still lived in the heavily Muslim enclave.
Molenbeek is home to some 95,000 people, and local officials say it has at least 24 mosques. Each of those mosques has three or four imams, many of whom are known to interact only in Arabic.
Although most of the imams have joined a campaign to reject extremism and the lure of the Islamic State, local officials in Molenbeek say elusive networks of jihadi recruiters linger on the periphery of several of the mosques.
When Geraldine spoke of her son’s fatal involvement with the Islamic State over the summer, she did so from a discreet location in Molenbeek.
For years, Molenbeek was a flashpoint on the “Jihadi Superhighway,” through which at least 3,000 young men have traveled from Western Europe to the Middle East.
Most of the recruits flew commercially right out of major EU airports to Turkey before climbing into Islamic State cars for the trip to the group’s “caliphate” across the border in Syria and Iraq. That was the path Geraldine’s son Anis took in January 2014.
Although he grew up with little enthusiasm for the religion, he suddenly became infatuated with Islam, his mother recalled. “The radicalization of my son took four months,” said Geraldine, who converted to Islam herself in the early 1990s when she met and fell in love with her husband, a Belgian man of Moroccan descent.
The couple thought little of it when their son “suddenly started praying more,” said Geraldine, who wore a modest blue Islamic-style blouse and no headscarf when she spoke with The Times in July. “He went from being a kid who wouldn’t get up in the morning to pray or to go to mosque, to praying a lot and then suddenly speaking about Palestine.”
She believed it was all part of her son’s growing-up and that the best thing would be to talk to him about it. “But then he came in one day saying, ‘Do you see [Syrian President Bashar Assad] killing people and nobody is doing anything about it? I must go and help those people. It is my role,’” Geraldine said. “The last signal was that he began speaking about the Koran and arguing with us about it. He was focused on some sentences that said you can make jihad, and he was saying, ‘See, this justifies killing and jihad and you must help suffering people.’” Anis disappeared soon afterward. Geraldine was sure he had left for Syria, so she went to the police to report his name and ask that he be prevented from boarding a flight out of Belgium. She said police declined her request because Anis had turned 18.
Then came an the anonymous call. A voice told Geraldine that her son was in Turkey and would soon go to Syria. If she wanted to speak with him, she would have to call back in three hours. So began a series of painful Skype calls, over the course of which Anis told his mother that he was in Syria to “help refugees.” Through tears, she believed him. At first, Geraldine said, she believed her son was in Aleppo, but then she discovered he was in Raqqa. The Islamic State declared the Syrian city the capital of its caliphate the very month Anis left Brussels.
All she had was his word for more than a year, until February 2015, when she received a message on her phone that said: “Are you the mother of Anis? You must be proud. He is a lion.”
The message said Anis was killed by an American airstrike while guarding the airport at Deir el-Zour, an Islamic Statecontrolled city southeast of Raqqa.
“My son is dead, and the recruiter is still alive?” Geraldine asked incredulously. “We must stop him because I’m sure he’s still talking to other young people and indoctrinating them.”
Belgian Federal Police spokesman Peter De Waele declined to comment but said it “is possible” that police are watching suspected jihadi recruiters.
Belgian police raided Brussels’ Molenbeek neighborhood in March after the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris. At least three of the terrorists grew up and still lived in the heavily Muslim enclave. Belgium has struggled to track jihadi recruiters in the area.